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Palestine's Radioactive Man?
I first met Yasser Arafat almost three long decades ago...

11 July   |   2012   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... My partner at the time, a BBC top executive, had secured a rare interview with el-khityar - the old man - in Tunis before he and his large number of acolytes had "returned to Palestine" as part of the initial start-up deal to the 1993 Declaration of Principles (DOP) and the subsequent - failed - Oslo process.

The house where my partner met Arafat had the dense stench of cigarettes and the leader was surrounded by a host of friends, advisors and acquaintances. The interview went well: Arafat was in fine form, with a wry sense of humour, some interesting sound bites for Auntie Beeb, a succinct articulation of Palestinian aspirations and the gift of a beautiful hand-embroidered Palestinian jacket.

I did not meet Arafat again till I became involved with the Oslo second-track negotiations on behalf of the Churches of the Holy Land. During those years when many of us prayed that peace was accessible, I saw him occasionally at his HQ in Ramallah (in the northern West Bank) or at other political or religious functions. For an outsider like me, he came across as someone who was furiously in control, busily manipulating disparate Palestinian factions as if playing them against each other on a chess board in order to keep them 'checkmated' and using his considerable financial largesse to curry favours. One had to understand Arafat's mannerisms in order to read some of his thoughts. Yet, despite being hailed as the Arab nationalist leader par excellence at a time when the Arab Spring had not yet started its political catharsis or else being reviled as a terrorist by his foes, much about him often reminded me of a revolutionary who could not comfortably wear the clothes of a politician. But then, the world leaders who worked with him did not necessarily wish him to wear the clothes of a politician lest he did not comply with their objectives - perhaps a sad moral of the Palestinian narrative to date.

But Arafat was not a pushover. He was shrewd and calculating and performed many political sleights of hand during the long decades when he incarnated the Palestinian best dreams - or perhaps their worst nightmares. He showed it during the Oslo years - and especially at the Camp David Summit in 2000 - when he was offered an unworkable and flawed agreement. He turned down the accords and suffered the indignity of being accused of selling out the Palestinian cause. But the Arafat who had once carried both an olive branch and a gun whilst addressing the UN General Assembly XXIX Session in 1974 and who was the organic receptacle of an idea that was far less than a reality, suddenly turned into an encumbrance for some powers and therefore became expendable.

The rest is history and it culminated in his undignified death in 2004. But in 2012, well over eight years after his death, and at a time when the world is preoccupied with the Arab uprisings across a whole swathe of the region, Al-Jazeera commissioned a series of highly-sophisticated tests that might indicate Arafat was poisoned by the highly radioactive polonium - incidentally not unlike Alexander Litvinenko who also died in 2006 from acute radiation syndrome from polonium-210. So for the past week, and after eight deafeningly silent years, the cyber-waves are buzzing anew with this Eureka moment, and the Palestinian Authority as much as Arafat's widow and daughter, Suha and Zahwa, have all been expressing outrage and clamouring for the exhumation of the body in order to conduct a post mortem.

So here are a number of putative observations and open questions today about this absorbing case:

  • Once Arafat stopped being feted by many world leaders and became a political pariah in 2004, his Mouqata'a HQ was surrounded for two years by the Israeli army until he was literally whisked away by a helicopter almost on his deathbed. Did he know he was dying? I do not know, but his people knew it. Did he suspect that he was being poisoned? I do not know either, but the majority of the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim worlds suspected it.
  • If the suspicions of so many people were reasonable, was the real cause of his death covered up? Was it simply that nobody found the smoking gun, or else that nobody truly wanted to find the smoking gun? Was his death akin to those of John F Kennedy or Rafik Hariri where many people concoct sinister conspiracies but nobody seems willing or able to find the incriminating fingerprints that could provide the evidence? Or was the plan that Arafat be removed so the Palestinian conflict gets resolved with less obstructionism? If so, who were the real culprits?
  • Why did Al-Jazeera decide to pursue this forensic, complex and costly investigation now - eight long years after Arafat's death and in the midst of many Arab uprisings and concerns? Why now when any scientist will have explained that the radioactive polonium would have already undergone twenty half-life periods by now? Surely, it would have been much easier - and therefore much more logical - to test for polonium earlier in order to establish a causal nexus? In the words of Dr Thomas Fangh√§nel, a German radio-chemist at ITU, any unsupported polonium ingested by the deceased might hardly be detectable at this late stage.
  • So who decided to poison Arafat, if it were indeed so, and where did it come from in view of the fact that it is not a readily available element? Who then physically administered the polonium? How did it reach the deceased in his 'bunker' in Ramallah? Who knew, including Palestinians or Israelis, or what did they know, and was anything done about it?
  • Given the current relegated status of the whole Palestinian political 'file', partly due to the MENA uprisings and partly due to the inability of the Palestinian leadership to pressure Israel, is the timing merely an inert political stunt to reawaken interest in this conflict?
  • Besides, could this explanation become more fathomable when one considers a plethora of associated factors ranging from the serious fiscal meltdown of the Palestinian Authority, the unresolved and festering tensions between Fatah in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza alongside the re-emerging role of Jordan, all the way to the confrontations with Mohammad Dahlan (dubbed as the Palestinian Ahmad Chalabi) who has been accused of aiding and abetting Arafat's death and even the conviction in absentia of Mohammad Rashid, Arafat's former economic advisor?

I am well aware that Arafat was never everyone's cup of tea - whether politically or personally. But we are not discussing personal proclivities or preferences here. The question remains simply whether this man who bore the hopes of many Palestinian men and women and who struggled for the self-determination of an indomitable people was coldly murdered or whether he died of natural albeit mysterious causes. Murder, after all, is not subject to any legal statute of limitations.

Robert Malley, the ICG Programme Director for the Middle East and North Africa, argued a fortnight ago at the Carnegie Council in Washington DC that the Arab Spring remained an unfinished business. I would argue that the same truth applies to the death of Yasser Arafat too. The forensic pathologists have not yet unmasked the smoking gun, but its acrid smell lingers very much in the air.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2012   |   11 July


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